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Andy Furillo: River Cats will welcome new neighbors in Sacramento sports boom

Sacramento River Cats manager Bob Mariano (19) meets with Jeff Savage, River Cats' President on Thursday, April 9, 2015, Opening Day between the Sacramento River Cats and Salt Lake City Bees at Raley Field in West Sacramento.
Sacramento River Cats manager Bob Mariano (19) meets with Jeff Savage, River Cats' President on Thursday, April 9, 2015, Opening Day between the Sacramento River Cats and Salt Lake City Bees at Raley Field in West Sacramento. jvillegas@sacbee.com

River Cats president Jeff Savage stood on the patio outside the Legacy Club at Raley Field the other night to enjoy a presidential view of downtown Sacramento.

For 16 years, the territory has belonged solely to his family’s minor-league baseball team. Soon, it will be shared with one big-league professional club, and possibly two, and Savage welcomes the company.

“I think it’s all positive,” Savage said about the downtown arrival of the Kings, who have played their home games in Natomas since moving here, and the proposal in the same general area for a Major League Soccer stadium for Republic FC, if it gains admittance to the league.

It will be a neighborhood sports fusion.

At 5th and L, you’ll have the Golden 1 Center, where the Kings will play, barely eight blocks from the River Cats’ home on the west side of the Tower Bridge, on the edge of the grid. When MLS finally wises up and awards Sacramento a team, Republic FC promises to build a soccer stadium in the railyard, its lights likely visible from the Legacy Club down the left-field line in Raley’s upper deck.

We’ve been waiting for this to happen for many years.

River Cats president Jeff Savage on the expansion of Sacramento pro sports

Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson wants to build 10,000 housing units downtown, and his counterpart on Savage’s side of the river, Christopher Cabaldon, looks as if he’s trying to match him on a West Sacramento kind of scale.

New restaurants open every week in the downtown area, while young artists and artisans, engineers and entrepreneurs flood the zone with energy and talent. The sports teams are forcing the public transportation system to tidy up while we gain renown as one of the best bicycle and beer towns in America, although you can still get busted for mixing the two. Sacramento these days has more going for it than just being close to Lake Tahoe and San Francisco. It is its own destination for millennial types looking to escape the boredom of suburbia for the inner city of River City. Big hotels and a hospital and a university food-science extension are on the way. We’re world famous for the Old Fashioned at Shady Lady.

“The great vibe” – that’s what Savage said has overtaken downtown.

Nobody mentioned any of this when the River Cats threw out the first pitch at Raley in 2000. Nobody says the Cats are the straw that stirred Sacramento’s surge toward the cool. But as they go into the final days of their 16th season, it might be time to recognize the minor leaguers as being first to throw the dice. The River Cats took the risk. Savage’s late father, Art, and partners Warren Smith and Bob Hemond angled the Triple-A stadium close to the river when smaller minds tried to sell the town on semi-pro at Sacramento City College.

The River Cats hooked up with the A’s and showcased a stream of prospects that included stars Barry Zito and Josh Donaldson and solid players who have made numerous major-league rosters – Brett Anderson, Mark Ellis, Carlos Gonzalez, Gio Gonzalez, Eric Hinske and Nick Swisher, to name a few. A year ago, they switched major-league affiliations, picking up the Giants and treating their fans to an inside look at how the minor leagues have worked in the construction of World Series champions.

As a franchise, the River Cats are comfortable in their own niche, in bringing relatively low-cost family entertainment and a bit of Americana to town 72 days a year.

When the season ends Monday at home against Albuquerque, the River Cats will again lead the Pacific Coast League in attendance, drawing more than 650,000 to the baseball park by the bridge that spans the Sacramento River toward the future homes of the Kings and Republic FC. Starting in October 2016, the Kings will bring in more than 700,000 each NBA season, and who knows how many tens of thousands will flock to Golden 1 for rock and rap and maybe even minor-league hockey. Once MLS gets over itself and admits Republic FC, the soccer club will draw better than 315,000 for its league home matches alone.

It’s all about “synergies,” Savage said when asked about the growth of the sports town and the effect the games will have on life in Sacramento.

“Everyone is going to feed off of them, including ourselves,” he said.

Sacramento’s makeover has troubled some folks in the nearby neighborhoods, and you can’t blame them for wanting to preserve the smaller-town feel. And there was something quaint about the bums hanging outside Jade Liquors and the parolees who lurked around the Greyhound station just hours after getting out of the joint. We’ll still get some of that even with the arena and the soccer stadium, neither of which will cover up human dysfunction that still will require the intervention of those who serve the homeless poor farther east on North B Street. It comes with being a railroad town, which Sacramento always will be, and with having a social economy unable to solve the problems of the underclass.

In the meantime, critical mass is on its way, and Jeff Savage and the River Cats do not fear that they will be overwhelmed when it gets here. They’ll welcome DeMarcus Cousins and the legions of NBA stars. They’ll hail Clint Dempsey and the only-one-star-per-team business model of MLS.

As a franchise, the River Cats are comfortable in their own niche, in bringing relatively low-cost family entertainment and a bit of Americana to town 72 days a year. They’re OK with being a lesser light amid a larger flash that’s about to pop.

Said Savage of the Sacramento explosion: “We’ve been waiting for this to happen for many years.”

River Cats’

last five games

At Raley Field

  • Today: vs Reno, 7:05 p.m.
  • Friday: vs. Albuquerque, 7:05 p.m.
  • Saturday: vs. Albuquerque, 7:05 p.m.
  • Sunday: vs. Albuquerque, 5:05 p.m.
  • Monday: vs. Albuquerque, 1:05 p.m.
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